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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Austen’s Lizzy & Shakespeare’s Hermia: More Birds of Borrowed Feathers

In my immediately preceding post about the veiled allusion to A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I see in Pride & Prejudice….

….I focused on the striking parallels between the scene in MND when Hermia and Demetrius verbally spar after she rejects his proposal, on the one hand, and the scene in P&O when Lizzy and Darcy spar verbally after she rejects his proposal, on the other.

Practically as soon as I sent that post, I realized that there was another parallel between MND and P&P, which I had not previously noted, but which is every bit as striking as those I discussed, above. And this one is very easy to explain (and as my P.P.S indicates, I am not the first scholar to spot it).

There is no more prominent theme in P&P than Darcy’s fascination with Lizzy’s eyes---it is, as will be seen below, mentioned seven different times during the novel, and it has been noted by at least a hundred commentators, and by millions of readers and filmwatchers. 

In contrast, I would wager that there are probably few motifs in Shakespeare’s oeuvre which are repeated more in the text of one of his plays, and yet have been given less scholarly and popular attention, than Helena’s obsession with Hermia’s eyes being more beautiful than her own, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even though it, too, is mentioned in seven different speeches throughout the play.

And I am telling you now that this is no accidental parallel, but that Jane Austen, amazing Shakespeare scholar that she so clearly was, picked up on Helena’s obsession with male attraction to Hermia’s eyes, and transmuted it into Caroline Bingley’s obsession with Darcy’s attraction to Lizzy’s eyes!

[Please note that the majority of the text in this long post are quotations from P&P and MND, which I present here for ease of reference-my own comments constitute less than 1/3 of the text in this post.]

I will begin by simply reproducing, below, one after another, all seven of the passages in P&P where Lizzy’s EYES are the object of Darcy’s admiration.  What more needs to be said in introduction, that every Janeite already knows? Not much. We all know that it is Lizzy’s eyes, more than any other aspect of her appearance or behavior, which are considered to have a nearly magical power to attract Darcy, in spite of himself. All the same, it is interesting to read them all in seriatim:

Ch. 6: Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley's attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by THE BEAUTIFUL EXPRESSION OF HER DARK EYES.
"I can guess the subject of your reverie."
"I should imagine not."
"You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner—in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. I was never more annoyed! The insipidity, and yet the noise—the nothingness, and yet the self-importance of all those people! What would I give to hear your strictures on them!"
"Your conjecture is totally wrong, I assure you. My mind was more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which A PAIR OF FINE EYES in the face of a pretty woman can bestow."
Miss Bingley immediately fixed her eyes on his face, and desired he would tell her what lady had the credit of inspiring such reflections. Mr. Darcy replied with great intrepidity:
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet!" repeated Miss Bingley. "I am all astonishment. How long has she been such a favourite?—and pray, when am I to wish you joy?"

Ch. 8: You observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure," said Miss Bingley; "and I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition."
"Certainly not."
"To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! What could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum."
"It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing," said Bingley.
"I am afraid, Mr. Darcy," observed Miss Bingley in a half whisper, "that this adventure has rather affected your ADMIRATION OF HER FINE EYES."
"Not at all," he replied; "they were brightened by the exercise."

Ch. 9:  Mrs. Bennet and her daughters then departed, and Elizabeth returned instantly to Jane, leaving her own and her relations' behaviour to the remarks of the two ladies and Mr. Darcy; the latter of whom, however, could not be prevailed on to join in their censure of her, in spite of all Miss Bingley's witticisms on FINE EYES…

Ch. 10: "Have you anything else to propose for my domestic felicity?"
"Oh! yes. Do let the portraits of your uncle and aunt Phillips be placed in the gallery at Pemberley. Put them next to your great-uncle the judge. They are in the same profession, you know, only in different lines. As for your Elizabeth's picture, you must not have it taken, for what painter could do justice to THOSE BEAUTIFUL EYES?"
"It would not be easy, indeed, to catch their expression, but their colour and shape, and the eyelashes, so REMARKABLY FINE, might be copied."

Ch. 18:  "I have been most highly gratified indeed, my dear sir. Such very superior dancing is not often seen. It is evident that you belong to the first circles. Allow me to say, however, that your fair partner does not disgrace you, and that I must hope to have this pleasure often repeated, especially when a certain desirable event, my dear Eliza (glancing at her sister and Bingley) shall take place. What congratulations will then flow in! I appeal to Mr. Darcy:—but let me not interrupt you, sir. You will not thank me for detaining you from the bewitching converse of that young lady, whose BRIGHT EYES are also upbraiding me."

Ch. 45: "For my own part," she rejoined, "I must confess that I never could see any beauty in her. Her face is too thin; her complexion has no brilliancy; and her features are not at all handsome. Her nose wants character—there is nothing marked in its lines. Her teeth are tolerable, but not out of the common way; and as for her EYES, which have sometimes been called SO FINE, I could never see anything extraordinary in them. They have a sharp, shrewish look, which I do not like at all; and in her air altogether there is a self-sufficiency without fashion, which is intolerable."

That last one is the only sour note in the bunch, as Caroline Bingley finally walks into the lion’s den and actually tries to make the case to Darcy as to all the reasons why Lizzy’s not so beautiful after all.

Now, let’s turn to the seven speeches in MND about Hermia’s eyes, and then at the end, I’ll briefly look at what comes up for me in comparing them to the P&P passages quoted earlier, above.

MND 1.1 HELENA [to Hermia]:
HELENA [soliloquy]

MND 2.2:  HELENA: [soliloquy]
LYSANDER: [to Helena, after the love juice has been sprinkled on his eyes by Puck]

3.2   HELENA:  [to Demetrius]

We see in these Shakespearean speeches a few wrinkles not present in JA’s treatment of Lizzy’s eyes. First, Shakespeare not only depicts Hermia’s attractions to men as significantly owing to the beauty of her eyes, he also depicts the effects of the love juice on Lysander when suddenly it is Helena’s eyes which he (temporarily) sees as beautiful. And finally, at the end, while watching the Mechanicals perform Pyramus and Thisbe, it is Lysander, his normal self restored and now in love again with Hermia, who takes note of Thisbe’s “sweet eyes”, an expression which Thisbe will, curiously, immediately repeat, as if Lysander already knew the speech before he heard it—it seems that Shakespeare wanted to remind us of Lysander’s renewed love for Hermia by showing his sensitivity to “sweet eyes” and the peril to the heart of the woman owning those eyes when her man ceases to admire them.

Based on the above, can there be any doubt that Jane Austen meant for her Shakespearean-sensitive readers to pick up on the allusion to Hermia’s “bright eyes” in all of her emphasis on Lizzy’s eyes?

I think one would have to avert one’s eyes completely from the texts of P&P and MND in order not to recognize Jane Austen’s in-your-face (ha ha) literary allusion to Hermia’s fine eyes.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: This post will be immediately followed by another post about Pride & Prejudice and another Shakespeare comedy, the inspiration for which came to me as I was working on this post. So stay tuned….

P.P.S: I just did some Googling before posting this, to see what scholarly answers (earlier than mine) to Diane’s original question about the MND in P&P might be out there, and I found a couple:

First I see that Christopher Bertucci, in his 2009 thesis reproduced here…

….was apparently the first scholar to pick up on Jane Austen’s alluding to Hermia’s eyes in P&P, and so kudos to him for that. Bertucci may have first gotten the idea to look for that allusion by what he read in an earlier article, as Bertucci explains: “Walter Anderson [in a 1975 article]…compares the frustration of the developing love between Darcy and Elizabeth to the “crossed” lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but does so to emphasize the precariousness of Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy’s marriage proposal.”  I have now read Anderson’s article and it speaks about P&P and MND in a very general manner, not giving any indication that Anderson recognized a specific intentional allusion on JA’s part. In my terms, I’d say that Jane Austen gave Anderson a Trojan Horse Moment, by subliminally introducing the idea into his mind that Darcy’s failed marriage proposal was connected to MND, but his not realizing what a powerful and direct allusion there really was, hidden in plain sight in Ch. 34 of P&P.

And finally, the only other prior scholarship I could find on this subject was by Stuart Tave in 1993, and it’s also a Trojan Horse Moment. Tave contrasts Elizabeth’s metaphorical  “mortifications” in P&P, arising out of growing self-awareness,  with Hermia’s literal (threatened) mortification in MND if she refused to marry Demetrius as ordered by her father. That is first rate intuition on Tave’s part, but he did not seem to realize that this was not a coincidental resonance, but was actually part of Jane Austen’s intentional allusion to MND in P&P.

In any event, beyond those few citations, I find no other prior discussions of the MND allusion in P&P in the scholarly literature.  Which is staggering, when you think about the popularity of both of these immortal literary masterpieces over a period of centuries.

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